Other Voices

Texas needs freedom in education

An excellent formation of knowledge and principles as a child gives each of us the skills and virtues we need to help each other and be good stewards of creation. Every child deserves the very best education possible.

Texans have always taken this duty seriously.

The Texas Constitution directs the state Legislature “to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

Unfortunately, Texas has not quite lived up this goal. The achievement gap between low-income children and those from wealthy families is as persistent today as ever.

What can be done? School choice is an excellent solution.

Universal schooling means little if children born into poverty are assigned to schools that fail their genius. I cannot stand up and oppose parents having options, because research shows that when parents have options, kids win.

Studies on school choice from 1998 through 2010 — performed by scholars at universities like MIT, Harvard, UT Austin, Johns Hopkins and Columbia — all conclude that the policy of giving parents options improve math and reading proficiency. This is true especially among low-income and minority students.

All of these improvements have been verified over and over again. But the truly awesome gains resulting from school choice can be found in improved graduation rates. Not only do struggling, low-income students get better at math and reading, they stay in school longer and graduate at higher rates.

Case in point: A 2012 study from Harvard scholars found that college enrollment by minorities increased by 25 percent with school choice, and that enrollment in selective colleges by African Americans doubled. The federal Department of Education found a similar result in 2010, when it concluded that school choice increased high school graduation rates by 12 points in Washington D.C., from 70 percent to 82 percent.

School choice is good for kids. This is the most important point in this debate, but it is repeatedly forgotten.

It was forgotten in this very newspaper on May 1, when a group of Fort Worth pastors opposed parental choice. Their opposition arises from the best of intensions, especially a care for children and a desire to preserve a strong community.

Their most fundamental objection was that parental choice is a “violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” a vehicle “for the propagation of religious opinions,” and worse, a use of “public money to discriminate on race, gender, religion and special needs.”

It’s a serious charge. These pastors, some of whom I know and respect — and one of whom is my own at First Presbyterian Church — nevertheless merit a respectful hearing and response.

The truth is that the separation of church and state would not, in any way, be violated by school choice. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in 2001 and found that parental choice programs would be allowed under the First Amendment if they provided educational assistance to a broad class of individuals, without reference to their religion.

Senate Bill 4 prioritizes scholarships for children with the highest financial and academic need. No reasonable observer would think that such a neutral private choice program is intended to privilege (or establish) one religion over another.

Texas schools, insulated from the pressures of competition and parental choice, cannot make the gains listed above. The last 30 years of reforms and the 43 school choice programs in place around the U.S. show that giving parents options is a necessary part of a successful system.

School choice is good for children and compatible with our Constitution. Parents, especially those of low-income kids, cannot wait for the next three- to five-year series of reforms. They need freedom and school choice now.

Brooke Rollins of Fort Worth is the president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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